1 Corinthians

Written by Hans Conzelmann Reviewed By Wayne Grudem

First published in 1969 as Der erste Brief an die Korinther (the fifth Meyer commentary on 1 Corinthians), this book in English translation now becomes Conzelmann’s second contribution to the Hermeneia series (The Pastoral Epistles appeared in 1972). The commendable features of this series are all present: a translation from German of remarkable clarity, an English translation following every Greek and Latin quotation, and a beautiful format which makes the volume itself almost a work of art.

Conzelmann views 1 Corinthians as a unity, although chapter 13 is a ‘self-contained’ section which, though Pauline, fits poorly into its context (p. 217), and 14:33a–36 is an interpolation (p. 246). Wisely rejecting the gnostic-background theory of Schmithals, he writes, ‘We have to make a methodical distinction between ideas and concepts which in themselves are Gnostic and those which may have been taken over by Gnosticism but were of earlier origin and arose in an entirely different speculative context. The concepts and motifs in 1 Corinthians belong without exception to the second group.’ Yet Conzelmann adds, ‘The Corinthians could be described as proto-Gnostics’ (p. 15). A welcome insistence that ‘certainty attaches only to what we can learn from the text’ (p. 15) leads him to say also that ‘it is impossible for the specific positions which Paul combats to be assigned to any specific group’ (p. 14).

Conzelmann’s own theory is that all the problems at Corinth can be explained by an emphasis on ‘enthusiasm’ which arose in the following way. Paul’s preaching that Christ died and rose again (15:3, 4) led the Corinthians to focus their faith ‘solely on the exalted Lord’, and they soon began an unbalanced ‘movement of spiritual ascent along with the Redeemer’ (p. 15). This movement found expression in ecstatic experiences which were actually experiences of self, not of the Spirit. Thus, exaltation Christology led to ‘enthusiasm’, which led in turn to selfishness which caused most of the problems at Corinth.

This is an interesting thesis, but it may be questioned whether Paul or any other New Testament author ever attributes excessive ‘enthusiasm’ to an overemphasis on Christ’s exaltation, or whether in fact any evidence for such overemphasis can be found in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, chapter 15 combats a far different error, namely, the denial of a future resurrection (15:12) and a consequent shirking of responsibilities in the Lord’s work (15:58). Conzelmann never does show how this ‘enthusiasm’ in worship was really an experience of the self (Paul emphasizes the Spirit in 12:4–11), or how it might have led to selfishness in other areas (such as factionalism, 1:12; lawsuits among Christians, 6:6; immorality, 6:15ff.; food, chapters 8 and 10; and the Lord’s supper, 11:17ff.). It is probably more accurate to say that selfishness, pride and jealousy, caused not by deficiencies in Paul’s preaching but by the immature and sinful hearts of the Corinthians themselves (3:1–4), may best explain most of the problems at Corinth. If some theological justification had been proposed by the Corinthians to excuse their immoral conduct in this present life (6:19; 7:17; 10:6, 7; 11:21; 14:2–5; 15:58), it probably took the form of an excessive emphasis on present enjoyment of heavenly blessings (1:7; 4:8; 5:6, 9, 10; 10:11, 12; 15:50).

The major strength of this commentary is its rich store of extra-biblical material relating to each passage. There are frequent lengthy quotations from Greek and Latin sources not readily accessible to most readers. Thus at 5:1 we are given quotations concerning the Roman law prohibiting marriage between a stepmother and stepson; at 6:4, examples of kathizō meaning ‘appoint as’ (judges) at 10:13, an example of anthrōpinos‘human’, used synonymously with ‘that which is light, easily borne’; and at chapter 13, two pages of lengthy extra-biblical parallels to the ‘love chapter’. Of course the lexical material could be found using Arndt-Gingrich-Bauer, and readers may well question the excessive use of Hellenistic sources (the index shows three or four times as many references to Greek and Latin writings as to Old Testament passages), but to have so much collected in one volume is still an immeasurable benefit provided by no other commentary on 1 Corinthians.

A second advantage is that Conzelmann does attempt to be structural in his analysis, giving us, for example, an overview of chapters 1–4 before he starts verse-by-verse exegesis, and a summary when he has finished a section. Unfortunately, this admirable procedure is discontinued later in the volume, so that chapters 7–15 are introduced without any overview or discussion of their role in the Epistle as a whole.

The most disappointing weakness, however, is found in Conzelmann’s exegesis. Rather than struggling with the meaning of a difficult text, he often relies on bibliographical overkill. Discussing archontes, ‘rulers,’ at 2:6, he presents seven lines of argument and an entire column (forty-three lines) of bibliography. The difficult phrase ‘present in spirit’ (5:3) is left without any attempt at explanation, as are 6:17, ‘He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit’; 7:14, ‘Your children are holy’; 7:15, ‘The believing brother or sister is not bound’; and 11:29, ‘Not distinguishing the body of the Lord’. In the crucial passages on wisdom (2:6–16), on tongues and prophecy as signs (14:20–25), on Paul’s authority as an apostle (2:13; 7:12, 25, 40; 14:37), and on women in the church meeting (14:33b–36), we are left with virtually no help in understanding the actual meaning of the text. Conzelmann is at times impatient with careful analysis, protesting, for instance, that to read gar in 1:18 as a signal that Paul is providing the ground for what preceded is ‘too formalistic’ (p. 41). In textual discussions there is a similar lack of concern for thoroughness. He decides for gar instead of de at 2:10 with the one-sentence argument, ‘But gar is supported by P46’, and he rejects the strongly attested entolē at 14:37 without discussion. Such exegetical superficiality is especially frustrating in a commentary on 1 Corinthians, where puzzling texts abound.

A second weakness is Conzelmann’s lack of interaction with some of the older commentaries which are often strong in precisely the kind of careful argument which he lacks. No mention is made of Ellicott, Godet, Hodge, Lightfoot or Meyer, and only at points does he interact with Allo or Robertson and Plummer. On the other hand, the publishers have decided to issue this translation six years after Conzelmann wrote (1969), and so the book takes no account of more recent literature on 1 Corinthians (such as the commentaries by Barrett and Bruce).

Wayne Grudem

Wayne Grudem is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona.